Sweet Grass, (Hierochloe odorata) was very important to Native Americans of the northern prairies and upper Midwest and New England. But sweet grass also occurs in the northern Europe and Eurasia, there are some closely related species of the grass in various countries. From earliest recorded history sweet grass has figured prominently in sacred ceremonies of humans around the world and was also used as a medicinal herb. Many anthropologists have suggested that the grass was deliberately bought into North America by migrating populations of humans. We know that the plant was cared for and cultivated by many Native American groups.
When archeologists are searching for the locations of ancient Native American settlements they often look for large patches of sweet grass. Sweet grass is very long lived, it can survive for centuries, and it doesn’t occur in nature in large patches, rather it is interwoven with other grasses and low weeds in small clumps. Since Europeans also knew and used the herb sweet grass, the presence of large patches of the grass could also indicate early European settlements.
Occasionally the plant is found in the wild where it might have grown naturally but because the plants are largely sterile and produce few seeds many plants found in uncultivated areas were at some point planted by humans. That makes for some interesting thinking should you find a “wild” patch of the grass. Sweet grass is often found on the shores of rivers and lakes, popular places for settlements, and along old trails used by Native Americans to move from one area to another.
Sweet grass gets its common English name from the smell of the dried grass leaves. When dry the leaves have a pleasant, vanilla like odor. The odor is caused by coumarin, which along with other chemical compounds in sweet grass also give it its medicinal qualities. In Europe it was also called holy or sacred grass. Native Americans had many common names in various languages for sweet grass, often translated as “the hair of Mother Earth”. We’nuskwûn and Wekusko were words used to name sweet grass in tribes frequenting Michigan and Ontario. Sweet Grass is one of four sacred herbs to Native Americans, sweet grass, sage, tobacco and cedar.
Description of sweet grass
Sweet grass is a very hardy perennial and can be grown even in Zone 1. It is a clumping grass with deep rhizomatous roots. Sweet grass gets only 8-10 inches tall, then the blades elongate over the ground to up to 48 inches long. This forms clumps averaging about 4 feet wide in good conditions. The blades are tough, deep green, hairless, about a ¼ inch wide and as they grow they turn over, exposing the underside. This is shiny, one of the leading characteristics of the plant. The blades are always flat and never V shaped. The blade at the base and just under the soil is white and hairless. The lower part of some sweet grass blades may become reddish or purplish in soils deficient in minerals.
The fresh sweet grass blades will not smell like vanilla, the scent develops during drying. But another identifying characteristic is that blades laid in the sun to dry will quickly curl up, whereas most other types of grass blades will remain flat.
Sweet Grass does put up small flowering spikes in spring, typical of many grasses, with flowers in small clumps of 3 arranged along a short spike. However the flowers rarely produce seeds and when they do the seeds have a low fertility rate. The plant reproduces itself primarily by spreading rhizomes. This leads many biologists to believe the plant was selected and spread by humans because natural reproductive means would have been low. The selection for long blades, which are favored for braids, may have selected inadvertently for low seed producing plants.
Cultivation of sweet grass
If grass grows in your area you can grow sweet grass. Do start with a plant, companies sell seeds for sweet grass but the germination rate is very low and it takes a long time for a seed grown plant to become a nice plant, where a small division will take off and grow quickly in the right conditions. There are named cultivars now, but it’s not necessary to spend extra for them if you aren’t going into commercial production of braids.
Choose the location for your plant carefully and label it! Many young sweet grass plants are “weeded” right out of the garden. Give it room to spread. Keep the weeds and especially other grasses pulled out around it to eliminate competition for resources and so that you know where the sweet grass plant is located. Once it has formed a large mature clump it is harder to mistake it for something else. Sweet grass has a very long life span; it may live longer than you.
Sweet grass likes moist but very well drained soil. Sandy loam is excellent. It seldom does well in heavy clay soil. Water logged soil will quickly kill the plants. It doesn’t do well in drought and if you want good plants you’ll need to water it in dry spells. Full sun produces the best blades although it will grow in partial shade. Sweet grass can be grown in large containers.
Fertilize your sweet grass with a high nitrogen fertilizer in early spring and again in mid-summer after harvesting blades and once again in early fall at the rates recommended for lawn grass for abundant growth. Lawn fertilizer without weed or insect controls will do as will blood meal or other organic nitrogen sources. Manure probably shouldn’t be used; it tends to introduce seeds of weeds and other grasses.
Sweet grass goes dormant in the winter. Leave the dried leaves until spring and then cut them back. That’s the only mulch the plant needs to survive, the use of other mulches may kill the plant.
You can propagate the plant in early spring by separating or dividing it.
Harvesting sweet grass
The first harvest of sweet grass can be done in late June-early July and if re-growth is rapid you may get a second harvest in August from cultivated plants. Harvest must be done before frost as frost weakens the smell and probably any medicinal value of the plant. You do want some good regrowth to protect the rhizomes before winter hits.
Cutting the blades off about an inch or so from the base is the kindest way to harvest. When you pull a blade off it may tug up and loosen some of the root system. It also creates a ragged edge which is harder for the plant to heal. Early morning just after the dew has dried is the best time to harvest. You can leave some long blades on the plant but you can also cut every blade and it will re-grow.
Lay your leaf blades out in a sunny spot on newspaper to dry. After the first day in the sun move the grass to a warm dry shady spot for another 1-2 days. Modern herbalists also recommend storing the drying grass wrapped in cloth in the freezer overnight, and then bringing it out again to continue drying in the open air the next day. This helps preserve the smell and chemical qualities. Store dried grass in plastic bags or glass containers in the refrigerator or freezer, or in a cool dark place.
If you want to make some herbal medications, insect repellant or oil scents you need to harvest fresh leaves and use steam distillation to produce oil. Some herbal teas call for fresh leaves also and are simply brewed as other teas. A few leaves can be harvested at any time.
Use of sweet grass ceremonially, ornamentally
Sweet grass was used in rituals, as an offering and to induce a “spiritual” atmosphere. It was smoked in pipes, or burnt as smudges (incense), or thrown into fires by Native Americans. In Europe it was also burnt as incense, and was strewn on the floors and thresholds of holy places. It was considered to ward off evil, bring luck and signify thankfulness to the creator.
In general sweet grass is dried and woven into braids for ceremonial use. Native Americans wove the braids into their hair braids, made bracelets and armbands or carried braids or bundles of sweet grass in medicine pouches. This served several purposes, it was an ornament- much the way we use crosses and rosaries, and it imparted a pleasant scent about the wearer. When needed as a prayer or offering a piece of the braid could be burnt.
Native people thought sweet grass repelled insects. We now know that sweet grass oil does repel mosquitoes as well as DEET according to some studies, although it’s not known if the dried grass has the same effect. Read a recently released study here; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150817085426.htm
Smudges were burnt in homes to purify them and the smoke was waved over people in ceremonies of purification. It is said that breathing the smoke induces feelings of calmness and peace, although scientific proof of that hasn’t been pursued.
Sweet grass was also stuffed into “pillows” and laid among bedding for its scent and insect repelling properties. But one of the most common ornamental uses was to weave it into baskets or use sweet grass braids as decorative edging on clothing and little wooden boxes or bowls. Only very small baskets were totally woven from sweet grass, the braids were usually woven into baskets made of willow or other materials to scent them or to make them sacred or spiritually pleasing. Sweet grass was also soaked in water and used to wash the hair to impart a pleasant scent, (and maybe get rid of bugs.)
Sweet grass braids are still in much demand today for ritual use and for weaving and it can be a profitable herbal crop. Growers cultivate long lengths of blade, comb blades to separate them and follow other techniques to increase value.
Medicinal uses of sweet grass
Sweet grass has many herbal uses but isn’t recommended much anymore because we now know that use of plants containing coumarin may cause cancer. Sweet grass tea is used for coughs and sore throats and a cooled tea is used to soothe raw or chapped skin.
Sweet grass concoctions were used to treat venereal diseases and uterine/ vaginal infections. A tea was given to help expel afterbirths, which leads to a caution against pregnant women using the grass as it may cause contractions. In Europe vodka was flavored with sweet grass.
Sweet grass is a great plant for ornamental and spiritual use but use caution ingesting it.
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